Liverpool’s Champions League final charge has it roots in Hong Kong, where Jurgen Klopp got a glimpse of what needed to change
The Reds’ journey to Kiev began in Hong Kong Stadium back in July last year when they picked up the Premier League Asia Trophy
It’s funny to think Liverpool’s journey to this weekend’s Champions League final in Kiev began with a makeshift night-time training session at Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground.
An amber rain warning had forced the club to cancel plans for an open training session earlier that afternoon for local fans at Mong Kok Stadium last July.
“You think you cannot train but we did, under the most difficult of circumstances,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said in Hong Kong. “I love it – I want to create difficult situations.”
Getting creative in tough times is what has brought Klopp and Liverpool to a showdown against Real Madrid – and there were no stickier situations than those faced in a sweltering Hong Kong, where they beat Crystal Palace and Leicester to lift the Premier League Asia Trophy.
“You can’t read too much into pre-season games and results, but we knew we were on the right road,” former Liverpool defender Jason McAteer, who was in Hong Kong as a club ambassador for the tournament last July, told South China Morning Post.
“I don’t think we ever set our sights on the Champions League final but it’s just grown and grown and grown as the season went on. Liverpool have been a joy to watch at times this season.”
Mohamed Salah also set out his stall at Hong Kong Stadium with a neat goal against Leicester.
“Salah had just come in,” McAteer, who was in Hong Kong again last weekend as an ambassador for the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens, said. “He showed little flashes in that tournament of what he had in his locker.
“I don’t think we ever thought he would reach the heights he did through this season, scoring the amount of goals he has. But he’s had a phenomenal year.”
Salah has scored 44 goals in all competitions this term, putting himself in the frame for the 2018 Ballon d’Or award – though Cristiano Ronaldo, who he will line up against on Saturday, is not far behind the Egyptian on 42 goals.
“Mo’s proved it in the first place but it’s just maintaining that level of performance over Lionel Messi and Ronaldo – that’s the last 10 years now they’ve won the Ballon d’Or, that’s what makes them superstars,” former Liverpool goalkeeper David James said in Hong Kong last weekend.
“Salah’s performances so far have been superb – do it for two or three seasons in a row then you’ll start to compare on a career level.
“At the moment it’s just a wonderful season that can hopefully continue for one more game.”
It quickly became clear in Hong Kong that Liverpool had major distractions on their hands, the most pressing being Philippe Coutinho.
Klopp spent most of his time at press conferences answering questions about whether the Brazilian was joining Barcelona or not.
“I thought Liverpool did well with Coutinho, persuading him to stay at the beginning of the season,” McAteer said. “The pressure had mounted from Barcelona, it would’ve been easy to cash in and sell him.
“Credit to Klopp’s man-management skills, he kept him relatively happy for three or four months. Coutinho did play his part in that first half of the season at times.
“I thought Coutinho might have just stayed until the end of the season, but there was a lure to get to Barcelona as quick as he could. They let him go for a fee [£142 million] they were happy with, that was a good bit of business.”
Rather than suffer in Coutinho’s absence, Liverpool’s attack has thrived since, with Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino all stepping up a level.
But defence remained an issue, something else Klopp was questioned about in Hong Kong after a move for Virgil van Dijk was put on ice when Southampton accused Liverpool of making an illegal approach.
Liverpool continued to leak goals before finally completing a £75 million move for the Dutchman in January.
“He’s [Van Dijk] played a major part in where Liverpool are now,” McAteer said. “The defence was our Achilles’ heel. We were always susceptible to conceding, even when we were leading.
“The mentality of the team has changed since he’s been in.
“You see a calmness at the back, he’s a leader, that’s what Liverpool needed, a voice in the team to help [captain] Jordan Henderson with the pressure.”
With their Hong Kong distractions finally dealt with in January, Liverpool started on the path that led them to the Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kiev.
“I’ll be there watching, I just hope Liverpool win,” James, who made 214 appearances in goal for Liverpool, said. “Whether it’s 0-0, a penalty shoot-out ... any win will do.
“There’s only two teams in the final and Liverpool have earned the right to be there.”